Jonah Hill’s directorial debut Mid90s is a coming-of-age drama set in Los Angeles during the titular time period, expectedly infused with nostalgic pop culture throwbacks and strung together with a dream playlist of classic hip-hop and punk needle drops, with everybody from Wu-Tang Clan to Nirvana represented. But it is skateboarding that forms the heart and soul of the film, and gives its characters a unifying sport that allows them to find their identities within a thriving subculture.
Mid90s follows 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) as he integrates into a group of older higher schoolers who work at the local skateshop. There’s Ray (Na-kel Smith) the de facto leader who dreams of becoming a pro skater and might have the skills to do it. The burnout Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) whose lack of an academic future filters into his here-for-a-good-time-not-a-long-time nihilism via drunken partying. Ruben (Gio Galicia) uses skating as an escape from his abusive home life. And then there’s Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) whose learning disabilities and low IQ leave him shy and isolated, but he is always filming his friends with the goal of one day cutting a skate video and becoming a videographer.
When they’re not skating or partying, the boys in Mid90s are often seen sitting around the skate shop watching pro videos. While Fourth Grade’s obsessive documentation of his friends makes him look a tad like Wes Bentley in American Beauty, filming is a normal part of the scene and for kids who want to go pro, getting a part in a video is a sign that you made it.
Hill wears the influence of skate videos on his sleeve in his direction of the skateboarding sequences, often using the camera to draw the viewer’s eye to the board or the rail the kids are grinding. Cinematically, skate videos have rarely been acknowledged by critics and have largely remained within the realm of promotional tools for board and clothing companies, or as niche shorts that circulate within a closed audience of skaters. They mostly lack narrative but are fittingly rich on characters as they profile the antics of pro skate teams and feature music video style editing that hones in on a skater, their board, and the tricks.
The best skate films are cut to create free-flowing demo reels of a pro’s skills and although Mid90s dedicates plenty of screentime to vivid skating, narrative films rarely stray from their storylines long enough to explore the visceral excitement, experimental form, and liquid movement that are the hallmarks of skate videos. There are other exceptions (Gus Vant Sant’s Paranoid Park a prime example) but too often skating in narrative films is flat, brief, or tertiary.
The skate video as a genre first rose to prominence in the ’80s with the films of George Powell and Stacey Peralta, the duo behind the iconic Powell Peralta skateboard company and managers of the legendary Bones Brigade pro team which included members like Steve Caballero, Tommy Guerrero, Rodney Mullen, and a guy by the name of Tony Hawk. As directors, Powell and Peralta made nine films together between 1984 and 1991, and would arguably draw the blueprints for the genre’s future.
Beginning with The Bones Brigade Video Show, the team’s first full length showcased a blend of street and vert skating cut to a variety of unusual music genres include new wave, surf rock, and blues. 1987’s The Search for Animal Chin was a goofy adventure that showcased the Bones Brigade’s skills but with the added novelty of a plot to connect the skating sequences together. The film’s lighthearted sense of humor made it a hit with young skaters and intimate scenes where the team — which included Hawk, Caballero, and Guerrero — hung out around campfires or in hotel rooms gave viewers the chance to connect personally with the pros. Ultimately the addition a plot about a search for a lost Chinese skateboarding mystic would make Animal Chin a standout hit, but its cheap (and, uh, racially insensitive) story wouldn’t be as stylistically influential on the genre as later Powell Peralta entries like Public Domain, Ban This, and Propaganda which returned to the freeform showcase style of filmmaking.
Entering the ’90s, it was Blind Skateboards’ 1991 classic Video Days that would cement the aesthetics of the skate video. Directed by Spike Jonze and featuring Mike Gonzalez, Guy Mariano, and future Mallrats star Jason Lee, the 25-minute Video Days quickly became one of the most defining films in the genre. The soundtrack ranged from The Jackson 5 to Black Flag to Dinosaur Jr (with War’s “Low Rider” acting as a promenade between parts), the skaters joked, drank, and performed with smoothness. It’s not so much that Video Days is a departure from the Powell Peralta style of filmmaking, but more a perfection of it.The lo-fi camerawork gave the skateboarding its punk edge, and taking the jokes a step further with an infamous ending where the entire Blind team dies in a car crash.
Since then, skate videos have continued to evolve and innovate. Free from the constraints demanded by mainstream storytelling, the best videos are playgrounds for filmmakers looking to experiment. Jonze, best recognized for Being John Malkovich and Her, has perhaps done some of his finest work through his skate films. Not just Video Days but in Yeah Right!, Fully Flared, and Pretty Sweet, all co-directed with Ty Evans, Jonze lets loose with pyrotechnics and animation effects. In one famous sequence from Yeah Right! Jonze and Evans digitally remove the skateboards from each shot so skaters appear to float across the ground and through the air. Throughout Fully Flared, they create hypnotic, flowing sequences of skaters riding street architecture, the frames speeding up and slowing down without abandon. HD filmmaking today adds fresh clarity that videotapes could never provide and the fluidity of skateboarding creates a zen-like calm in between the That’s-Gotta-Hurt montages of bails and injuries.
More recent works like the films directed by Pontus Alv for Polar Skate Company go even further in capturing the beauty and freedom of skating. 2016’s I Like It Here Inside My Mind, Don’t Wake Me This Time and 2018’s We Blew It At Some Point are stark, experimental films grounded in a popular sport. We Blew It At Some Point, available in full on YouTube, begins with a 60 second, fisheye lens, long take following a single skater’s line, weaving in and out of obstacles and luring the viewer into tunnel vision that sets the dreamlike tone for the 30 minute movie. Alv’s work in particular focuses on architecture and street art, often taking time to capture and show the statues and monuments of each city he films in. In I Like It Here Inside My Mind he cuts in surrealist dream sequences, and in the process almost suggesting skating as a metaphysical activity as on camera it seems to transcend the physical, transcend gravity, and soar into the sky.
While the music video is an obvious cousin, and the era of MTV reality shows shaped by skate culture like Jackass and Viva La Bam utilize the genre’s aesthetics, the closest cinematic predecessor of the skate video is actually the city symphony. The lasting influence of silent era works of filmmakers like Dziga Vertov may be most realized in works like Just Skate, We Blew It At Some Point, and Yeah Right! In 1929, Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera was an avant-garde portrait of Moscow and the people within it, utilizing every camera and editing trick imaginable to create a kaleidoscopic vision of modern urbanity.
Vertov wrote in 1924 in his essay “The Birth of Kino-Eye” that his ideological method of filmmaking “is understood as ‘that which the eye doesn’t see,’ as the microscope and telescope of time, as the negative of time, as the possibility of seeing without limits and distances, as the remote control of movie cameras, as tele-eye, as X-ray eye, as ‘life caught unawares,’ etc. etc.” That is what Jonze, Evans, Alv, and other auteurs of the skate video do today. They reveal how skaters utilize the city environment around them to create art in the form of grinding, wallriding, clearing gaps. They free the cinema from the constraints of narrative and capture performers in a moment where they must be in the moment and reveal their true selves. Then through Pro Tools editing they perfect their anti-narrative visual art, blend and blur the raw footage, break down time, and make their symphonies (or maybe they should be called City Mixtapes).
Without spoiling the story, Mid90s ends by showing us Fourth Grade’s homemade skate video. Like Animal Chin or Video Days his movie is as much about friendship and hanging out as it is a chance to show off his crew’s skating abilities. It is fast-paced, vivid, comical, and without structure. While Hill’s full film is more in the vain of youth hang out films like Kids and Slacker, the skate video permeates Mid90s and informs the filmmaking. In this final sequence, that all comes to fruition.